In an earlier column, I wrote that capitalists, unlike earlier ruling classes, have no motive to preserve the environment because their exploitation is based on value rather than on physical products. Where the feudal lord sought grain or fine clothes, the capitalist pursues profits. And profit, unlike grain, doesn't require healthy soil in which to grow.
But that is only part of the explanation of capitalism's destruction of the environment.
Money is central to capitalism. It is both the indispensable prerequisite of production and its goal. Because of this centrality, money dominates all other aspects of society. It comes to regulate human behaviour in general, not only economic activity directly.
Money is both the symbol and the real means of social connection in capitalism. It is the "glue" that makes a capitalist country a society instead of a random collection of individuals. That is, in capitalist society, no-one has a right to support, solidarity or assistance from their fellow human beings. You are entitled only to what you can pay for.
This is expressed in everyday speech when someone is denied some government benefit they believe they are entitled to. They don't normally say, "I deserve that, I'm a citizen". They say, "I deserve that, I'm a taxpayer".
The very limited exceptions to this rule are either survivals from pre-capitalist relations (the family, for example), or the results of attempts by working people to go beyond capitalism by demanding various social welfare measures. Such measures are contradictory to the needs and the logic of capitalism, and almost always under attack by capitalists.
Capitalism concentrates our relationship with other human beings in society in a thing, money. Our social existence, cooperation between people, becomes converted into a relationship between mere things. Human social activity becomes alienated from itself. In this way, capitalism creates an alienated, atomised form of society in which conscious social action becomes almost impossible.
Consequently, capitalist society has no real mechanism for meeting and overcoming social dangers. In bourgeois political theory, this is the role of the state. But in reality, the state represents, not society as a whole, but one section of society, the ruling class, against the rest.
The capitalist state has mechanisms for suppressing behaviour that threatens ruling-class property. It can forbid and punish actions that are often called "antisocial" but are really infringements against individuals. But when it comes to really antisocial behaviour — behaviour that harms the entire society — the capitalist state seems strangely powerless. This is not simply because rich polluters bribe governments, although that certainly happens. It's because it's in the very nature of capitalism to express social approval or sanctions through the mediation of money. It contradicts the nature of capitalism to regard making money as socially wrong, because making money is the standard reward of capitalism for approved behaviour.
What this means in a practical sense is that, if you notice a factory pouring waste into a river, you can't knock at the door and tell whoever answers, "Look what you're doing — you'd better stop".
First of all, they know what they're doing. Secondly and more importantly, if you ever really meet them face to face, they can and probably will reply to the effect, "Society approves of what I'm doing. Here's the proof: I'm making money by doing it."
You can't defeat that argument within the framework of capitalist society: within capitalism, it's correct. Money is the symbol, in fact the substance, of social approval.
If human beings cannot take conscious social action to address or avoid environmental dangers, then we are done for. But conscious social action — which means the active involvement of the majority of society — is inherently contradictory with the character of capitalism. In capitalism, it is money, not people, that acts and decides.
From Green Left Weekly, July 5, 2006.
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